Fiction, Vol. 4.2, June 2010
Nine armless, legless torsos are laid out in front of us on the table. All males, all plastic. The one they gave me, the lungs don’t work, so every time I breathe in I can’t tell if I’m doing it right. The others’ chests rise and fall, but my guy’s just lays there, flat, dead. I asked if I was blowing too soft, and the instructor said I was doing fine, that it was just a normal breath. He said, “When we get to the babies though, someone like you blows too hard and you’ll pop their lungs, actually cause ‘em to explode. So small breaths then.”
We sit around two cheap rectangular tables pushed together in what looks like it used to be a front reception area for a converted business office building. My fellow students, there’s eight of them, all female, every one of them is a nurse, or was a nurse, has since moved up in the medical chain. They casually use words like perfusion and pulmonary. Neonate. They’re not showing off their vocabulary. It’s just the right word, the most clear way to get across their point. They know the correct way to hold their hands even before the instructor shows them, fingers interlaced. They’re calm. You’d definitely want them to save your life. They’re Laotian and Jamaican, a smiling older woman from Columbia, a shy white girl from Northridge, a Malaysian anesthesiologist with bright cherry red lips. I wish I could date all of them. Especially the Jamaican girl. Some people just have a presence that draws you, this beauty that thrills you, and it’s all so individualized, what attracts humans, but with her I felt a strong pull, a wish that I was brave enough to ask her out. I’m so single it’s painful. Last month I made California minimum wage through a temp agency. This month, nothing. They make $37 an hour. They must have the best health plans on the globe. I wish I would have followed their life paths. I wish I would have listened to my parents and did what was financially wise instead of going after my dreams, because after a year in L.A. you realize that to become a professional actor you have to have rich parents; that’s about it, the only real prerequisite. You don’t even need talent. At least all the actors I’ve met. You ask about their lives and find out they grew up in Malibu, had lawyer dads, third generation Yale grads. My parents were teachers. My dad started off at $4000 a year. I’m assuming none of these women in this room wanted to be actresses or if they did they wisely put that on hold until they were sure they could pay twelve months worth of rent. I’m also assuming they didn’t grow up in Malibu, that they don’t have Wall Street moms. Their childhoods were bilingual, with immigrant parents, grew up on coupons. Now they live comfortably. They have wedding rings, boyfriends scheduled to pick them up at 2:30 p.m. They have lives.
We’re learning CPR, how to open an airway, how to give abdominal thrusts to a choking victim.
The instructor gives us a smoke break, the only one of the day. Only one person actually smokes—the instructor. The only guy in the room other than me. He walks out. We all sit, an uncomfortable silence. Two of the nurses start a quiet conversation in what I think is Spanish. The sole white girl stands, slowly sidesteps along following a series of wall photographs depicting the proper application of the Kendrick Extrication Device; she looks like she’s at an art museum, head cocked.
I go to the unisex bathroom, try the handle, but it doesn’t move. The Columbian woman looks at me, not smiling. I creep outside.
The instructor is simultaneously thin with a high body fat ratio, skinny with a beer gut. He’s a paramedic in Brea and I know he can lift 125 pounds by himself because he told us that all EMTs and paramedics have to be able to do that. “I should quit these,” he says, holding up his Marlboro.
I haven’t touched a cigarette in eight months and want to brag about it, but hold back. “How long you been a paramedic?” I ask.
He shrugs. “Six years,” he says, “Seven.”
He nods yes, blows out smoke.
I notice he’s missing half of his left ring finger.
All day long, all through the entirety of adult CPR, and I never noticed the finger. He notices me notice it, so I try to think of something to say, but luckily he covers for me.
“So you’re just taking this to learn,” he says, “That’s great.”
“Yeah,” I say, putting my head down. I don’t want to tell him why I’m here, but I could feel a big question mark in the room when we had to go around telling about ourselves and why we were taking the class. Everyone said the hospital or clinic or nursing home they work at and said it was their “refresher.” That’s how it went around the room. “Jan Chang. Children’s Laboratory, Encino. Refresher.” “Mireya Grant, Valley Presbyterian Maternity, Van Nuys, refresher.” When it came to me, I said my name and that I don’t work at a hospital and left it at that. I felt like people didn’t like my vagueness. The instructor paused to see if I’d say more and when I didn’t he looked at the next person and she said who she is, filled in the silence. My eyes got teary, bad memories and a reaction I have whenever I feel like I don’t belong in a room, so I reached down and untied my shoe, retied it.
I’d finally started talking about it with my V.A. counselor. It’d taken twenty-two years, but it had come out, an accident, nine months of conversation with my current counselor, a day when she sat quiet, a lull at the opening of the session and she said, “I have to ask, why do you always sit with your knee like that, up by your face? Do you feel threatened?”
I put my knee down.
“It blocks the photo,” I said.
The photo was her family—her husband (tall, British, not good looking, a radiant sense of kindness), her daughter (braces, serious and studious face, beautiful straight blonde hair), and a baby (tiny, giggling) in her daughter’s arms. I wasn’t sure if the counselor was a mother or grandmother.
“Why would you want to block the photo?”
And then I had to figure out why.
It was a relatively happy family, as happy as any family can be with its guaranteed fights and tears and broken windows.
“The baby,” I said.
“And why don’t you like the baby?”
“It’s not that I don’t like it. It’s just that I don’t want to see it.”
I had told her about my loneliness, about my daydreams about holding a pregnant wife in my arms, about wanting to have children, so I could feel that playing back to her, that inner tape of our conversation, and so she knew it wasn’t that.
And then it came out. I actually like those moments of therapy, where your tongue unleashes and you say things you didn’t even know were in there. And for me, I’m sixteen, babysitting for our neighbor, Mrs. Goneimi, who needed to head out for an hour. She loved me, Mrs. Goneimi. I used to be hyperactive, used to constantly tease her, and I’d have her laughing. She trusted me while she was out—only an hour—while I watched her baby. “She’s asleep,” she said, “She’ll be fine and I’ll be right back.” And she was fine.
For forty minutes she slept, and then woke up and cried, and the crying was something that, at sixteen, frightened me worse than horror movies. I was too nervous to touch her, to pick her up. I’d seen people pick up babies and I always worried that their neck was going to break. They seemed like they were made of glass. Like they were more fragile than the thinnest paper. And the crying got worse, wailing, so that I looked at the clock and rushed to the window and paced and prayed, and I never pray, unless it’s absolutely necessary, because I have always believed you only get a certain number of prayers and then God just gets sick of you. But the wailing was not normal, there was this intense urgency so I got down on my knees because I’d seen that on Christian cartoons, the one with the talking dog, that that’s how you’re supposed to pray, so I did it, and I hadn’t prayed since our championship Little League loss, so I felt that God owed me since he didn’t fulfill my last request, and maybe God heard that thought, because right when I was praying the gagging started and I had all this water in me that was just ready to flood out, because I had no greater fear than death and death of babies in particular and Mrs. Goneimi was stupid enough to allow me to get caught in this position, so I rushed to the phone on the wall—this was pre-cell phone days—and dialed my mom and she didn’t pick up—and this was pre-answering machine days—and the thirteenth and fourteenth rings were maddening, like I was losing my mind, and when the baby wouldn’t stop, I didn’t drop the phone, I threw it against the wall, pretending the wall was God’s face, because this was ridiculous and then the crying stopped and that was worse.
I stood over the crib and saw that her breathing had quit, and don’t remember what I said, but I’m sure it wouldn’t have made sense to anyone listening, fragments of thoughts, and I was going to have to conquer one of my greatest fears and touch a baby and they didn’t know that, Mrs. Goneimi didn’t know that, that I’d never so much as even touched one, because I was sure I’d drop her. I’d dropped baseballs at key points exactly when you’re not supposed to drop them. And I’d dropped a dozen roses right when Kathy Wooly came to the door for the first date I ever went on. And so why wouldn’t I drop a baby? So I was so cautious it was like I was guilty. The neck, in particular, I was so gentle with, just being sure that it stayed as straight as I could keep it, and the face seemed to be turning blue, and I tried to hurry to the front door but I couldn’t run, because I just had horrible images, and the door wouldn’t open and I’m sure I was crying at this point and then it opened and I walked out in the middle of the street crying holding this dead baby, this blue baby, and in my mind it was dark blue now, it was skeletal now, and I saw a neighbor come, Mr. Cort, come out of his house and walked straight for him and gave him the baby and he took it and ran with it into his house, actually ran, and when he took it he wasn’t careful with the neck and I dropped down on his driveway and he must have washed his car earlier in the day because the pavement was wet and I could feel it in my knees and I kneeled like that with the Lameer boys watching me. I don’t know how I got home, or got into my bed, or anything, I just remember my mom saying that the baby was fine, that it was OK, and I told her that it was blue and she said that Mr. Cort didn’t say anything about the baby being blue and then I was back in the counselor’s office and in the reflection of the photograph I could see myself and my face was red and worn and it felt like some kind of deep dark heavy metal door in my chest had opened and years of bad air was finally able to come out.
And the counselor didn’t tell me this, because she didn’t tell me much really. Her job seemed easy to me. It seemed like she just took notes. But I had the idea, just like the idea that I needed to quit smoking, the idea that I needed to never be like that 16-year-old again, and coming to this class I was hoping would change me. It was on a list of four things I’d written down to help change my life. This was step number three and I was getting that much closer to having a life too. I was single at thirty-eight. And I think I’d first started to put my leg up to block that photo right around the time when we got into it about smoking, how it was a pack a day, how it was the way I was trying to kill myself, cigarette by cigarette. At least that’s what I deduced. The counselor didn’t tell me anything. I just had this strong image that I had to quit smoking. And this strong need to take this class. And one thing was leading into the next. It was a really strange plot that God was setting up for my life. And if He had to write all of this out, I thought it must be exhausting, planning all these intricate interconnections, all these Sherlock Holmes clues to our psyches. Crazy.
I wanted to say all of this to the instructor, but I didn’t.
I wanted to tell him that I felt this awe that he must have saved a hundred lives by now, but instead all I said was, “How do you handle the gore?”
All of the things I could have said and wanted to say and that’s what I said.
“The blood and stuff.”
He told me he had been an EMT for the majority of his years doing this, that he’d recently become a paramedic, and he said that despite being called an Emergency Medical Tech, the majority of his calls were non-emergencies. “We’re basically medical taxi cabs,” he said, “You pick up an elderly patient not feeling well and you drive them to the hospital. Where’s the gore in that?” He also said that even now as a paramedic doing emergency calls the blood and guts don’t get to him, that it’s never really fazed him. “Although I hate dandruff,” he said, “That makes me want to vomit. I had one patient, this woman, she had so much dandruff and she was itching her scalp and it was just floating in the air, like snow, and I was breathing it in. It drove me crazy.”
He sucked in his final smoke, put out the cigarette in a red barrel, and said, “I’ve seen a lot of corpses. And that doesn’t really bug me. It just doesn’t. Even kids,” he said, “I’ve seen dead kids and I thought that that’d give me nightmares and stuff and it hasn’t. I don’t know if I’m in another mode when things are, you know, major MCI stuff, but we had one night where we got an MVA. That’s a Motor Vehicle Accident call, you get those a lot, and it was a family, a family in an SUV. Bad. You have two vehicles in a head-on each going 65 miles per hour, that’s like a car going 130 miles per hour into a wall. I don’t know about the other car. But we took the SUV family to the hospital. And I was fine. I was fine until we got to there, where there was this pause where I was leaning against the wall. And there was this moment where they were all lined up. They had them in a line, these four bodies. It was a mother, a father, a son, and a daughter, all next to each other.” At this point his eyes filled with water but the tear never fell, just glassy and beautiful. “And, I don’t know, seeing them like that, it hit me, how fast you can lose everything, how an entire family can go, just like that.”
I noticed he didn’t have a wedding ring, but I could see him looking past me, seeing his wife, kids, just felt that he had them. That he must take his ring off when he teaches, when he works.
“We have to get back,” he said, bending over to pick up a butt on the ground, throw it away. “What you do anyhow?”
“For a job?”
“Well, I wanted to be an actor, but I’m starting to kind of give up now.”
“You should be an EMT. Ten weeks of school, you start making thirty grand a year. Tons of pretty nurses at the hospitals you’d be working at. It’s a good life.” He walked back inside.
Like magic, all of the adult CPR torsos had gone. One of the nurses must have put them away and replaced them.
In front of each of us was a baby. Plastic, yes, but there was a believability to their faces. I still got the impression that they were scared, fragile, and that I needed to practice, not only saving them, but practice just holding one.
I picked mine up, not like you’d normally pick up a dummy, but with real care, cradled it, gentle, and looked down at it thinking, “I’m going to save your life,” and I looked up and the Columbian woman was looking at me smiling. So was the Jamaican nurse.